Patents on genetically modified foods

Patents can be used to protect by force of law the results of an intellectual process of creation (intangible property), mostly technical innovations, directly or indirectly. The direct effects of a patent comprise a number of actions which are reserved to the patent holder. Any third party who engages in any of these actions (without authority) infringes the patent. The protection is obtained by being awarded a patent on applying to the competent patent office.

Patents are distinguished between product patents and method patents:

  • A product patent protects the production, offering, marketing, use, possession and import of the subject matter of the patent.
  • A method patent protects using and offering the method.

Patent holders can take legal action against any infringement of their patents.

Patent Act (PatG). Online Version (German)

Bill on the improvement of the enforcement of the rights to intellectual property (2008). Online Version (German)

In principle, it has been possible to patent biotechnological applications in Europe since 1998. Accordingly, both biological material (product patent) and processes relating to the production, processing or use of biological material are generally patentable. However, inventions whose design relates exclusively to certain plant varieties or animal breeds are excluded. Even though the directive in question does not contain any legal innovations, but instead applies existing law to this field, it also lays the foundation for the patenting of genetically modified foods.

For more general information on the subject of patents in the field of biotechnology, see for instance:

Advisory Board on Biodiversity and Genetic Resources at the Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection (BMELV) (2010): Biopatents – A Threat to the Use and Conservation of Agrobiodiversity? Online Version

Advisory Board on Biodiversity and Genetic Resources at the Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection (BMELV) (2011):  Product-by-Process-Ansprüche auf Biopatente in der Tier- und Pflanzenzucht – Voraussetzungen, Problemlagen und Handlungsempfehlungen. Stellungnahme. Online Version (German)

The Federal Government of Germany (2018): Vierter Bericht der Bundesregierung über die Auswirkungen des Patentrechts im Bereich der Biotechnologie unter anderem hinsichtlich ausreichender Technizität sowie Auswirkungen im Bereich der Pflanzen- und Tierzüchtung. Berichtszeitraum 2018/2019. Online Version (German)

German Patent and Trade Mark Office (2020): Biotechnology and patents. Online Version

Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (2021): Biopatente: Keine Patentierung von Tierrassen und Pflanzensorten. Online Version (German)

In the context of genetically modified foods, a number of ethical issues arise in connection with the patenting of biological materials and processes. Since it is possible to patent certain characteristics or gene sequences in addition to entire varieties, it is possible to appropriate existing varieties by using low-threshold genetic engineering methods (such as the use of gene markers) without actually making any inventions of one's own. This applies, for example, to certain advantages, such as resistance to fungal diseases, which are discovered in a little-known plant variety and transferred to commercially widely used other varieties using genetic engineering techniques. By granting the patent on this property, the patent holders obtain the rights to their new breeding as well as to the species on which they first discovered this property, although the latter is unrelated to the patent holders and arose independently of them, evolutionarily. This is particularly problematic in the context of so-called "biopiracy", where previous discoveries are based on traditional indigenous knowledge or the great biodiversity in countries of the Global South and are appropriated by large corporations without adequate compensation for the transfer of knowledge or the use of biodiversity. Such a procedure is strongly reminiscent of colonial exploitation mechanisms, insofar as those affected are instrumentalized for economic reasons and their interests are disregarded. The patentability of genetically modified food also leads in some cases to questionable forms of dependency, often also between small agricultural enterprises in the Global South and large corporations from the Global North. The introduction of patents on certain genetically modified varieties makes the traditional breeding of new plants from the seeds of previous harvests partly illegal, as it becomes necessary to purchase the rights of use for each sowing anew. Social inequalities are thus exacerbated.

Proponents justify the practice of patenting GM foods by citing the high cost and time involved in the research process. Moreover, patenting in general helps to make science more transparent and to share the knowledge behind innovations. It is argued that the negative effects do not lie in patenting per se, but in an abuse of the exclusivity of use associated with it. However, not every form of patenting leads to unjustifiable dependencies, but these only become morally problematic when the patent holders do not fulfill their responsibility associated with the patent.

Tippe, R. / Dolan, K. / Moy, A.-C. / Eckhardt, J. / Then, C. (2020): Eleven reasons why Europe needs to ban patents on food plants and farm animals. München: No patents on seeds!. Online Version

Kock, M. (2019): Patents for life: Toward an ethical use of patents on plant innovations. In: Berg, T. / Cholij, R. / Ravenscroft, S. (eds.): Patents on life: religious, moral, and social justice aspects of biotechnology and intellectual property. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 227-239. Online Version

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